Pakistan’s struggle to keep citizens out of mosques amid bans and a rise in COVID-19 cases raises the question: should houses of worship stay open during a global pandemic?

Concerns are rising after citizens of Pakistan continue to gather at mosques despite the government imposing bans in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

At a news conference held on March 26, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Doctor Noor-ul-Haq Qadri announced that while Friday and daily prayers will be restrained, mosque doors will remain open.

Although the nation borders China, Pakistan is only now starting to experience an incline in numbers of COVID-19 with a total of 1,938 confirmed cases as of March 31. Thus far, Pakistan is the worst-hit nation in South Asia by the outbreak.

Each province imposed a ban on congregational prayers at mosques on different dates as more cases were confirmed. The rules outline that a maximum of five worshippers including the imam (prayer leader) and staff are allowed to pray together inside the mosque.

Even with bans in place, many mosques throughout the nation have resisted to comply by continuing to host Friday prayers. A citizen video posted online reveals a staff member at New Memon Masjid in Karachi, Sindh, trying to stop large crowds from entering the property but eventually opening their gates to them.

Religious clerics in Pakistan have also shown resistance towards banning mosque gatherings. Four were even arrested on March 28 for violating lockdown rules. And at a meeting held in Karachi on March 25, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, chairman of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, announced that mosque doors must remain open indefinitely.

Muneeb-ur-Rehman also advised that anyone who was sick or over the age of 50 should stay at home. However, Special Assistant on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza informed the press that the majority of cases in Pakistan are among people between the ages of 21 and 30.

“Even if there are no symptoms, everyone should remain at home,” said Abdul Hadi, a resident of Wah Cantonment (Wah Cantt), a military city in Punjab. Hadi said Wah Cantt has closed all of its barriers and no one can enter or leave the district.

“We are not going out of the house under any circumstances and are praying from home,” said Hadi.

“For a Muslim to see that a mosque is present, and they are not allowed to go there, it’s a great psychological setback,” said Lal Khan Malik, national president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Canada. “But in Islam, obedience is so heavily emphasized. Not only should an action be good, it should be appropriate.”

All Ahmadi mosques across Canada began to shut down earlier this month as cases increased. “It was a hard decision but since it is an article of our faith to obey the lawful authority, it was very clear how we should respond to it,” said Malik.

Other Muslim-majority nations including Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Malaysia have temporarily closed mosques. Saudi Arabia took matters a step further when they announced on March 4 the suspension of all pilgrimage in Mecca and visits to Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, to protect two of Islam’s holiest cities from the spread of COVID-19.

“It is better to close the mosques [in Pakistan] for now so that it does not become the cause of the spread of the disease,” said Hadi.

Sharjeel Hamayun is a Canadian citizen who was scheduled to fly back to Canada from Bahria Town, Punjab on April 4 but his flight was cancelled. Mosques in Bahria Town remain open during prayer timings, but Hamayun said villagers seem to be staying at home.

“There’s no sin in praying at home. God would probably rather have you pray at home instead of possibly getting others sick,” said Hamayun.

Reyhab Patel is also a Canadian who is visiting family in Karachi, Sindh for the month but is now having trouble finding a flight back by April.

“The past couple of days have been quiet under mandatory lockdown at 5 p.m.,” said Patel. “Prayer is being offered within the home, consisting of only those in the family.”

Other religious groups around the world have had to adapt to the COVID-19 outbreak to avoid further spread. All synagogues in Israel were ordered to close for the first time ever. Head of Catholic Church Pope Francis has been livestreaming sermons and special prayers focused on the pandemic.

All BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temples including their location in Etobicoke, Ont. have also closed across Canada and are using streaming to congregate online, too. Ontario first issued a state of emergency on March 17 and announced further stricter rules prohibiting social gatherings of more than five people.

Alveen Ahmed is a screening officer at Toronto Pearson International Airport who visits both the airport’s designated prayer room and Malton Masjid in Mississauga, Ont., both of which have temporarily closed.

“It’s unfortunate because I enjoy the idea of praying in congregation,” said Ahmed. “But physical places of worship being closed doesn’t mean you should disconnect from your faith. At the end of the day, as rapper Jay-Z said in his song ‘Threat’, ‘You ain’t gotta go to church to get to know yo’ God.’”

“I believe religion is a mix of a collective sense of belonging and personal belief,” said Patel. “But it is important to follow measures for the greater good to protect your fellow citizens and brothers and sisters in faith.”